Commentary

Today's speed rushers need to learn from the past

Once, many pass-rushing greats were technicians whose bags of tricks led to long, fruitful careers. Today, many linemen are relying on pure athleticism. That's not a good thing, Jeffri Chadiha writes.

Originally Published: March 13, 2008
By Jeffri Chadiha | ESPN.com

Former NFL defensive end Chuck Smith is a busy man these days.

One minute, he's traveling to college pro days so he can check on the NFL draft prospects he's been tutoring. The next minute, he's clearing his calendar to meet with Pro Bowl-caliber defensive linemen who want to learn a few secrets he picked up during his nine-year career. Soon, Smith will be even busier, because he's been capitalizing on a subtle trend sweeping through the NFL: teaching the intricacies of pass rushing, which many contend is becoming a lost art.

Now, this isn't to say the league suddenly is lacking players who can produce double-digit sacks or consistently pressure quarterbacks. It does mean, however, that the kind of stud pass-rushers Smith played with in the 1990s -- those who combined exceptional technique with extraordinary athleticism -- just aren't easy to find anymore.

"Within the last eight or nine years, most of the great pass-rushers have disappeared from the game," said Smith, who's been training defensive linemen and pass-rushing outside linebackers through his company, Defensive Line Inc., since 2000 in Suwanee, Ga.

"It kind of feels like what happened to the dinosaurs. It's like a meteor hit the planet and all the great pass-rushers started vanishing."

Granted, Smith has a flair for hyperbole, and there is a hint of the "in-my-day" vibe to his comments. But his point shouldn't be missed.

"There are probably better athletes rushing the passer now, but I don't know if you have better football players," said one NFL veteran offensive tackle who asked for anonymity. "Ten years ago, an offensive tackle had to be on his game every week because he could get embarrassed by a great pass-rusher. Now, you can go five or six weeks without seeing anybody who can give you a lot of problems."

Rush Street

An overview on the recent evolution of pass-rushing in the NFL:

• Chadiha: Refining 'lost art'
• Joyner: The 1990s vs. 2007
• Gallery: The 1990s vs. 2007
• Video: Schlereth, Merriman ESPN Video
• Podcast: Merriman, Joyner
• Vote: Best pass-rushers

Smith played for the Atlanta Falcons and the Carolina Panthers from 1992 to 2000, and that era was arguably the most dominant ever for pass-rushers. The league was blessed with stars such as Reggie White, Bruce Smith, Derrick Thomas, John Randle, Leslie O'Neal and Kevin Greene. Of the 20 players on the league's all-time sacks list, 14 were in their prime during the 1990s. (The NFL started compiling sacks statistics in 1982.)

Chuck Smith had 58½ career sacks, and now he's trying to share his knowledge with the younger generation. His customers include Pro Bowlers (Seattle Seahawks defensive end Patrick Kerney, New York Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora and Tennessee Titans defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth).

[+] EnlargeBruce Smith
AP Photo/Kevin RivoliOld sack masters such as Bruce Smith were better at combining brains and brawn than today's specialists, some claim.

He also has current draft prospects (Auburn outside linebacker Quentin Groves and defensive tackle Pat Sims). He plans to work with some college underclassmen who could enter the 2009 draft. You don't generate that kind of clientele without something to sell.

The reality is that many pass-rushers prosper these days without the benefit of the tactics that made those older players exceptional, according to several NFL players, coaches and personnel executives.

Today's players might not know how to use their hands to fend off blockers. Some probably don't have a full array of counter moves once an offensive lineman begins to figure out the go-to tactics. And reading the subtle movements of offensive tackles might be a foreign concept to others.

"You really don't see a lot of technique anymore," Umenyiora said. "You've got speed rushers and you have power rushers, but a lot of pass-rushers look real vanilla to me now. They don't impress me because they're not bringing anything to the game. And that's because I finally know what good pass rushing is supposed to look like."

Umenyiora said he mainly relied on his speed to get to the quarterback in the first five years of his career. After last offseason, his first working with Smith, Umenyiora learned more moves to set up opposing blockers. He finished with 13 sacks in 2007, seven more than he posted in 2006.

Umenyiora actually became so dedicated to the technical aspect of the game that he spent the night before Super Bowl XLII chatting with Smith about how best to attack New England Patriots Pro Bowl offensive tackle Matt Light. Although Umenyiora didn't register a sack in that contest, he contributed significantly to a Giants pass rush that flustered Patriots Pro Bowl quarterback Tom Brady in the upset.

The point here is that Umenyiora took his game to a technical level that, for four key reasons, just isn't reached as frequently in the NFL anymore.

[+] EnlargeBrett Favre and Osi Umenyiora
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesGiants lineman Osi Umenyiora (72) laments the lack of technique he sees from his fellow NFL pass rushers. He believes working with Chuck Smith helped him become a craftier pass rusher.

•  The zone blitz, which became the rage of defensive coordinators in the 1990s, has limited the pass-rushing opportunities for linemen, who often have to drop into coverage and see far fewer opportunities to go one-on-one against blockers. The result is that more teams try to create pressure through scheme instead of relying on the primary pass rush. As Smith said, "It seems like more teams are teaching blitzing instead of pass rushing."

•  College football has become a place where gifted pass-rushers can prosper on natural ability alone. Those with the skill to play in the NFL usually can overpower or simply run by offensive linemen at the collegiate level. And college coaches don't have enough time to teach technique, thanks to NCAA limits on spring practice. "Those guys don't see many great offensive tackles at that level anymore," said John Guy, vice president of pro personnel for the Buffalo Bills. "Because, when you think about it, there aren't a lot of great offensive tackles at this level of football."

•  Some pro players don't get enough work because of practice restrictions. This is mainly true in the offseason, as the labor agreement prevents teams from having significant contact during organized team activities. As a result, pass-rushers hone their skills against practice bags in the spring. "If you're a great basketball player, you might shoot 1,000 shots a day in the offseason," Umenyiora said. "But pass-rushers don't do anything in the offseason. Even when you get into mini-camp, you don't have a lot of time to work on your moves."

•  Offensive football also has changed drastically over the past 10 years. Unlike in the 1990s, when the seven-step dropback still was common, NFL quarterbacks now get rid of the ball more quickly. That's forced more teams, as one NFC personnel director said, "to place a higher value on natural ability when looking at pass-rushers than actual skill."

The main reason you don't see pass-rushers making all these beautiful moves anymore is that players don't have as much time to get to the quarterback

--Titans defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz

Said Titans defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz: "There is still a place in today's game for what Chuck Smith teaches, but it has to be more of a supplement to the player's ability level. The main reason you don't see pass-rushers making all these beautiful moves anymore is that players don't have as much time to get to the quarterback."

Schwartz is one of the NFL coaches who believe technique isn't vanishing from the game.

He listed Kansas City Chiefs defensive end Jared Allen (who led the NFL with 15½ sacks last season), Miami Dolphins defensive end/linebacker Jason Taylor and Titans defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch, who also has worked with Smith, as examples.

Schwartz also said he has a hard time not referring to a perennial Pro Bowler like Indianapolis Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney as great.

"I wouldn't say pass-rushers aren't as good as they were in the past," Schwartz said. "I'd say they're just evolving."

The question, however, is where that evolution will lead.

It's fair to assume that if fewer players are displaying great technical skill now, we're a lot less likely to see a gifted pass-rusher enjoy a 12- to 15-year career. We might be watching more players like Jevon Kearse, physical freaks who can dominate only as long as injuries or age don't deprive them of their requisite explosiveness.

[+] EnlargeChuck Smith
Bill McGuire for ESPN.comFormer defensive lineman Chuck Smith, instructing pupils here, is among many in the NFL who maintain today's pass rushers need to hone their skills year round.

Smith maintains another problem is that the aging pass-rushers aren't sticking around the game long enough to pass along tips to the younger generation. Since natural ability is in greater demand in today's game, there's a greater need for younger, more explosive pass rushers.

The prolific numbers once posted by pass-rushers also might be harder to accomplish.

Of the 24 players in NFL history who have produced at least 100 sacks, only four (Taylor, Michael Strahan, Simeon Rice and Kevin Carter) were in the league last season.

The odds of substantially more pass-rushers joining that list aren't great.

Teams also need to be more patient with developing younger pass rushers.

"The technique certainly isn't what you'd like it to be [for younger pass rushers coming out of college]. But that's why you look for people who have the ability to do it while also being able to learn the technique involved in doing it,'' said Mike Reinfeldt, the Titans' executive vice president and general manager.

Smith said he believes it doesn't have to be that way. He spent his final season in the NFL playing alongside White in Carolina, and he remembers how much effort White put into his game toward of end of his career.

In fact, Smith said he once asked White why he continued to work on new moves, and White told him, "It's because the game is always changing."

That much should be clear when we watch today's pass-rushers. Although the numbers and the results might seem similar, it's quite clear that many players in this generation are going about their business in a vastly different way.

Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.